“Just be average.”
The sense of the Kansas City Chiefs defense only with being average has dominated the thinking around the unit since Patrick Mahomes burst onto the NFL scene in 2018. With the Chiefs running an elite offense every year under Patrick Mahomes, the defense doesn’t need to hold the team for the Chiefs to be a bowl-caliber Super Team .
The year the Chiefs won the Super Bowl showed that this form of roster construction was a recipe for success. During the 2019 regular season, the Chiefs offense was third in offensive DVOA and fifth in points scored. Defensively, the Chiefs were 14th in defensive DVOA and seventh in points against.
It wasn’t just the stats that showed what the Chiefs defense was capable of that year. During the Chiefs’ playoff run, the defense had quality performances. For the Chiefs to score a touchdown on seven straight drives to come back against the Texans, the defense had to tighten up as well. Tennessee Titans running back Derick Henry averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in the AFC Championship Game. The defense made many key stops in the Super Bowl while Mahomes was struggling.
The Chiefs defense, by all accounts, was average to above average when the Chiefs won the Super Bowl. Heading into the 2022 season, it looks like more will have to break the Chiefs’ way for the defense to reach the heights of that 2019 unit.
The main reason the Chiefs’ defensive expectations need to be tempered is how young and young the defensive players are. The only proven multi-year starters on defense are on the defensive line: Chris Jones, Derrick Nnadi and Frank Clark. Players like Rashad Fenton, L’Jarius Sneed and Willie Gay are multi-year veterans, but appear to be in line to get as many snaps as they have thus far in their Chiefs careers. Other defensive players are new to the team or have a year or less of NFL experience, such as Justin Reid, Nick Bolton and Trent McDuffie.
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All of these new, fresh faces lead to a defense that has a lot of promise, but also a lot of question marks. The ceiling for the Chiefs defense is high enough to reach the levels of the 2019 defense, but the floor is near the bottom of the league. It’s not crazy to think that Kansas City’s defense could have the widest range of results in the NFL due to its reliance on youth and/or inexperience.
It will be difficult for NFL media and fans to determine if the defense is performing well, as traditional metrics can lie about true performance. The reason why? The Chiefs are playing a schedule full of offensive juggernauts.
The schedule features offenses poised to be the top ten units in the NFL with the Chiefs playing against the Los Angeles Rams, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Los Angeles Chargers. The other offenses on their schedule are also brutal, featuring games against the Arizona Cardinals, Las Vegas Raiders (twice), Denver Broncos (twice), Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers. First eight Chiefs 2022 schedule games are against a team listed above. It’s a brutal range of games, which means a few things for this new-look boss defense.
The first reality of the Chiefs defense is that it will be a trial by fire. The defense will make a lot of mistakes early in the year and, considering the offense the Chiefs will be playing, mistakes could lead to some less-than-stellar results. This is magnified by the fact that defenses coached by Steve Spagnuolo almost always start slow and then improve as the year goes on. This happened in 2019 and 2021.
Even if the defense was performing well at the start of the year, the offense the offense is playing means the defense is going to give up more raw stats no matter what. It would be exciting if the Chiefs defense held the Chargers to just 10 points, but that is unrealistic. With that in mind, advanced stats like DVOA will be vital to gauge the true position of the Chiefs defense in the league by midseason. There’s a very real possibility that Spagnuolo’s defense is a bottom-five unit in points given up, but it’s somewhere around 18th best by DVOA. While the Chiefs are playing the Bills, other defenses are playing the Chicago Bears.
All of this means the Chiefs defense could start slow, it could be ugly, and the group could be low on many lists in Week 8. This should come as no surprise, as it is a defense in transition. Understand that rookies, new faces, and seasoned vets all need time to grow and learn together. Dealing with the aforementioned brutal stretch of offense while the defense is still learning will be tough, but in the back half of the season, the defense will be battle-tested.
As the very serious proverb says about this situation, it it’s always darkest before the dawn.